Too much big boy talk? Here are 5 early 2021 predictions surrounding some mid-tier SEC squads
Let’s rundown what we *think* we already know about the 2021 season.
The SEC will retains its belt as the heavyweight conference in college football. Duh, right?
It will produce the most NFL Draft picks and is the only conference capable of producing 2 potential College Football Playoff teams.
The league is projected to have 5 teams ranked somewhere inside the Top 15 of most preseason polls, with Alabama widely expected to compete for back-to-back titles. Georgia is loaded and is pushing to get back to the Playoff, while Texas A&M and Florida are hoping to capitalize on almost-made-it-seasons from 2020. Then there’s LSU, which is a mess off the field but returns a roster that’s stacked with blue-chippers and should bounce-back from a miserable COVID campaign.
But what about the also-rans of the conference? The mid-size sedans that don’t get discussed as often? Well, here are 5 fun early predictions about a quintet of SEC teams not expected to compete for a conference championship this fall.
Ole Miss will pick off a big boy in 2021 …
While the ride isn’t always smooth, the Lane Train is always entertaining. Kiffin’s all-gas, no-breaks ethos made the Rebels one of the must-see teams to watch in 2020 — combining a thrilling, explosive offense (39.2 points per game and 6.97 yards per play) with just an abhorrent defense (38.3 points allowed per game and 6.67 yards per play allowed). Matt Corral returns as the league’s top quarterback and with even just a functionally breathing defense (the Rebels ranked last in the SEC in rush defense and 13th in passing), Ole Miss could emerge as a Top 25 team sometime this fall.
The Rebels will absolutely enter the rankings if they win the games they should and then upsets a traditional power likely among the top teams in the county. The Rebels have 3 chances to make a statement.
Oct. 2: at Alabama
Oct. 23: vs. LSU
Nov. 13: vs. Texas A&M
The most fun one is obvious: Kiffin becomes the first Nick Saban assistant to beat the master, but more likely, the Rebels trip up LSU or Texas A&M. Both are in tricky spots scheduling-wise. Sure, they’re at home, but Ole Miss must travel to Tennessee before hosting LSU, and then there’s a funky nonconference game with Liberty the week before A&M. There’s a lot of emotional baggage tied up into both those contests. Still, I think Lane gets it done once and Rebels beat a marquee team.
Connor Bazelak becomes a Top 5 quarterback in the SEC…
This prediction may be a bit brash, but Missouri’s second-year starter earned Freshman of the Year honors in 2020 after leading the Tigers to a 5-3 mark in the shortened conference-only season. His year was highlighted by a dashing debut against LSU when he threw for 400 yards and 4 touchdowns.
The rest of Bazelak’s season wasn’t nearly as popping (just 3 passing TDs the rest of the year) but the potential is there for Mizzou’s quarterback to make a leap and enter the same zip code as some of the league’s best quarterbacks.
Outside of Matt Corral and JT Daniels, most of the SEC quarterbacks are just projections. Bryce Young should be awesome, but will he be right away? Emory Jones has the tools, but can he put it all together as a starter? What about Bo Nix or Myles Brennan? Well, I think Bazelak is good enough to crack the Top 5 with a strong sophomore season, t0o.
Bazelak is raw — he played in a triple-option offense in high school — but he’s is a wickedly accurate passer on short and intermediate throws (67.3 completion percentage, ranking 17th nationally) and was even more efficient when he had a clean pocket (76% completion percentage, per SEC Statcast). The upside is there as well, as he should be more comfortable in Eli Drinkwitz’s system in Year 2.
With a better offensive line and a skill-group boosted by the transfer of Ohio State wideout Mookie Cooper, Bazelak should see a big boost in his production. I wouldn’t be surprised if he triples his touchdown production (7 to 21), especially if he improves his deep ball accuracy. He could be incorporated more in the QB run game, too — both considering his background in a wishbone offense plus the graduation of top tailback Larry Rountree III.
Chris Rodriguez Jr. will top the SEC in rushing …
Kentucky’s offense was mostly unwatchable in 2020, but the Wildcats’ lead running back did his best to carry the load for an anemic attack.
Despite missing 2 games, Rodriguez finished 5th in the SEC in rushing last season (785 yards), averaging 6.6 yards per carry — which ranked best among all SEC starting tailbacks. He added 11 touchdowns, 4th-most in the conference. By season’s end, the junior graded out as the No. 2 tailback in all of college football, per Pro Football Focus.
Now, Rodriguez has some stiff competition to lead the league in yards — South Carolina’s thumper Kevin Harris (1,138 yards in 2020) is back, as is Texas A&M standout Isaiah Spiller (1,036 yards) — but the Gamecocks are likely to lean on a two-headed attack this year with Harris and former 5-star MarShawn Lloyd, who missed the 2020 season with an ACL injury. Meanwhile, Spiller could stay fresher by ceding some touches to do-it-all playmaker Ainias Smith and Devon Achane, who had a 140 yards and 2 touchdowns in the Orange Bowl win over North Carolina. Georgia is likely to split carries among a trio of ‘backs, too.
Meanwhile, Kentucky doesn’t have better options behind Rodriguez, so he’s going to get the lion’s share of opportunities. Mark Stoops changed coordinator this offseason (in steps former LA Rams QB coach Liam Coen), but the veteran head coach is still going to lean on a gritty defense and physical rushing attack to win games. That spells good news for Rodriguez’s chances to capture the league’s rushing title.
Tennessee will finish with a Top 7 SEC offense for just the second time in 9 seasons
Off the jump, this might not sound like much: Top half of the league? That’s it? Well for the Vols, that’d be a big leap compared to seasons past.
Tennessee has become quite comfortable finishing among the cellar-dwellers in yards per play, scoring and yards per game, but that’s going to change under Josh Heupel.
Right now we don’t even know who will be the Vols’ starting quarterback: It could be Harrison Bailey or Hendon Hooker or Brian Maurer. It might also be recent Michigan transfer Joe Milton. But it doesn’t really matter. Heupel’s system is going to produce points and yards.
Heupel’s emphasis on tempo and vertical shots is going to auto-generate production, even with uncertainty at quarterback. And while Tennessee’s overall roster is still in flux, the offensive side is fairly stable. The line is deep and has a couple of 5-stars (Cade Mays and Darnell Wright) in the lineup, and although Jeremy Pruitt & Co., couldn’t exactly coach offense, they recruited that side of the ball pretty well. Wideouts Velus Jones Jr., Jalin Hyatt and Jimmy Calloway all have playmaking potential. Andison Coby, Ramel Keyton and Cedric Tillman are intriguing options, too. Heupel is also well-versed in incorporating versatile tailbacks into his scheme, and Tennessee has nice stable there with Jabari Small, Jaylen Wright and others.
The Vols aren’t going to stop many teams in 2021, so Heupel will have to keep his foot on the gas most all games. That’s going to lead Tennessee’s offense finishing among the league’s top half units — something that’s been quite rare over the last decade.
Grant Morgan will top 125 tackles …
I’m on record with my skepticism that Arkansas makes a leap defensively this fall, but there’s no doubt that Barry Odom’s unit received a major boost when linebacker Grant Morgan opted to return for a super-senior season.
The 5-11, 222-pound veteran is a classic blue-collar inside linebacker who stuffs the stat sheet, recording 111 tackles in just 9 games last season. The former walk-on is a great story and had 5 games with at least 13 stops in 2020.
Odom will continue utilizing a drop-coverage shell defense, so Morgan will have ample opportunities to rack up even more tackles this fall.
No SEC player has recorded more than 125 tackles since Devin White and Roquan Smith both did it in 2017. Martrell Spaight is the only Razorback with at least 125 tackles (128 stops in 2014) in more then a decade, but Morgan is poised to add his name to the list by the end of the 2021 season.
I bet he does.